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In Conversation: A Spanish and Japanese Chef on Tuna

By Guan Tan


A bluefin tuna weighing 165 kilograms laid on the table.


The Maestro Cortador, literally translated to the 'Cutting Master' of the Spanish tuna cutting ceremony, preparing the bluefin tuna ahead of the actual ceremony.


The bluefin tuna was caught sustainably, off the south of Barcelona.


In the background, the cutting master is assisted by chef Hideki Matsuhisa. Foreground, chef Nandu Jubany lays in order some of the earliest cuts of the tuna.


From right to left: The cutting master or Maestro Cortador, chef Hideki Matsuhisa, and chef Nandu Jubany collectively lay down one of the loins of the bluefin tuna.


The cutting master leans in to weigh down on the bluefin tuna.


In the final steps, the Maestro Cortador removes the fins.


Chef Nandu Jubany scrapes some meat off the tuna spine.


"Tuna is part of the culinary culture of both Spain and Japan. It has been present in Spanish and Japanese regular diet for centuries, although it is prepared in different manners," Japanese chef Hideki Matsuhisa, founder of Koy Shunka quips. 

The 46-year-old was born in Toyota, Japan. "My father had a sushi restaurant on the ground floor of our house, so I used to help him out after school." Matsuhisa later moved to Spain when he turned 25. At the other end of the earth, he found himself in a culinary culture that had a vaguely familiar philosophy, albeit vastly different techniques. "The traditional Tuna dissection — both Spanish and Japanese — had its goal of preserving the tuna [for] an extended period of time, however via different methods." 

In Spain, for one, the 3,000-year-old culinary traditions of tuna consumption is rehashed annually in a traditional celebratory ceremony christened "El Ronqueo de Atún" which is held "at the beginning of spring each year". In this time of the year, the bluefin tunas migrate towards their spawning ground, the Mediterranean Sea. On the way there, they pass by the Strait of Gibraltar, a narrow channel that sits at the southernmost end of Spain. "Tunas are caught just after crossing the Gibraltar Strait to enter the Mediterranean sea. It is the best time to catch them due to its optimal fat content, excellent flavour, texture and quality," Spanish chef Nandu Jubany explains. The 47-year-old runs the Can Jubany restaurant in Barcelona. 

The ceremony's name, El Ronqueo de Atún, does not actually refer to the sourcing patterns. The name "means [the] 'Snoring of Tuna', derived from the muffled sound that the knife makes when meticulously cutting along the tuna's spine. It is a centuries-old tradition of cutting the tuna in this way." 

In Spanish traditions, "normally the tuna needs to be chilled [and] they take out the tripe in advance. Later, the head and the tail are separated... They cut the fins then... the chin, cheeks, and other parts of the head. After that, they start to take out the tuna belly, loins," Jubany continues.

The Japanese tuna cutting technique is largely similar. "Tuna dissection has been present in Japanese culture for a very long time... It has been developed and polished over many years. The whole process needs to be very thorough and impeccable — both in terms of technique and force used to cut the tuna. There are many different styles, and everyone has a method of their own." Yet, in general, chefs have to "do your best to separate as cleanly as possible, the head, the loins, and the spine, and take out all the precious parts of the tuna," Matsuhisa explains.

Matsuhisa reiterates that both Spanish and Japanese cutting techniques surround preservation. He has come to learn that the Spanish technique was developed to "preserve [the tuna] during an extended period of time — in the times when there was no refrigeration known just yet. The cleaner and the better the cut was, the longer it could be kept." 

Speaking of fine cuts, the Japanese who were making fresh sashimi off the bluefin tuna specialised in precise cutting techniques. "You need very fine and thin cuts of fatty parts of the tuna for sushi," the Spanish chef, Jubany observes. And it has spawned "the famed Japanese knives [which] are now very widely used due to its excellent quality." Even though the Spanish may have had 3,000 years of tuna culinary history — compared to a mere 200 years for the Japanese — they eventually borrowed from the Japanese. "I think that traditional Spanish methods used to be much simpler, rough, and less organised at first... We have learnt a lot from the Japanese over the years, especially about the precision of cutting." 

As both chefs spoke, the word "respect" repeatedly popped up in their lines. "The processes might be slightly different. However, the respect towards a great product and its quality — using every single part of its cut during a compelling ceremony stays the same," Jubany adds. "It is fascinating for me that two completely different cultures celebrate and appreciate the same product, in a very much alike way. Isn't it extraordinary?"